Did you know that it takes almost an entire year to build just one Steinway & Sons grand piano? Enjoy these images of our Steinway pianos, with information on selection, construction, delivery, storage, and more.
On August 22, 2012, executive director Ruth Waalkes traveled to the Steinway & Sons factory and showroom in Astoria, Queens in New York alongside Jay Crone and Tracy Cowden of the Virginia Tech music department to select five pianos for the Center for the Arts.
“The factory itself is quite an historic site to visit,” said Waalkes. “Steinway moved operations there in the late 19th century, creating Steinway Village – literally a community with its own foundries and the factory, a post office, and housing and other amenities for employees. They have been building Steinway pianos there ever since. So much of the Steinway piano is still handcrafted. I’m not sure what was more impressive, the process of cutting, layering, and bending the large pieces of wood that becomes the body of a grand piano, or the intricate hand carving on the soundboard inside.”
“Fun fact: the patents regarding Steinway piano actions are so closely guarded that you are not allowed to take any photos of that floor of the factory while on a tour,” said Tracy Cowden, associate professor of piano and vocal coach at Virginia Tech. (That one is a different floor than the one pictured in the slideshow–we promise!) “It is amazing to watch the craftsmen do the work.”
“The showroom is prepped acoustically just for the purpose of testing pianos,” Waalkes said. “There they had eleven grand pianos set up for us.”
Crone and Cowden played each piano, Waalkes said, discussing the merits and characteristics, taking notes on each instrument. “Very interesting for me to be a part of this,” she said, “because I do not have the trained ear they each have to pick out the nuanced qualities, both in terms of the sound, and how the instrument responds as you play.
“Every Steinway is completely unique,” said Cowden. “There are so many parts that are hand-crafted, no two Steinways ever sound exactly the same. You could almost say they have different personalities!”
Waalkes, Crone, and Cowden selected two Steinway model D’s (the full nine foot grand piano), one Model B (a seven foot grand), and two K52 models (uprights).
“They have been in storage ever since, waiting for the construction here to be finished and at the point where we could control the environment and so on,” Waalkes said.
But selecting the pianos was just the start of the adventure. Care of the pianos is the next (ongoing) step.
“Even after a new piano is delivered, there is a lot of work that takes place to the piano to make it sound its best–that is the work of a skilled piano technician,” said Cowden.
“Performance instruments should be kept ready for performance at all times,” according to Steinway & Sons representative Rosa Hudson. “The tuning schedule is determined by the performance schedule with tunings scheduled prior to each performance.”
“When the piano is young, it requires more attention and maintenance tweaking until it is ‘run in’ after a few years, much like the gaskets in a new car,” according to director of production services at the Center for the Arts, Doug Witney. “While it is new, the piano will be much more reactive to changes in humidity and temperature and will lose tune from even short transport trips within the building. We will have piano technicians checking on the pianos fairly often until we know the personality quirks and can set a long term maintenance schedule in addition to the frequent tunings the piano will get, including tunings during long spans of time between shows.
“There are some treatments that are used in some cases,” Witney said, “such as ‘juicing’ the hammers, which is a reference to injecting a hardening agent into the hammers so they have a slightly harder strike, or ‘coating’ the strings to affect the brightness of the strings sound. These measures are applied lightly and cautiously to prevent over-treating and then not being able to pull back afterwards. Mostly these measures are used to get consistency across the board.”
Hudson recommends that “performance pianos should always be kept under a cover when not in use and pianos should be kept in cosmetically appealing condition.”
Cowden began to help us to run in our new Steinway pianos on Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, ahead of the performance by David Finckel and Wu Han on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. Han will be the first performer to play one of our Steinways.
For more information about Steinway & Sons pianos, visit their website or check out this fascinating article by NPR about the Steinway foundry.
Share your story: #PitchIra Glass
Now through Friday, tell us! If you could pitch one awesome story idea to Ira Glass, what would it be? Use #PitchIra and Tweet us @ArtsCenteratVT to be eligible for a pair of tickets to see Ira Glass, host of NPR‘s This American Life here at the Moss Arts Center on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. We’ll randomly select one winner on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.
We’ve gotten some exciting pitches already! For instance, Katherine Hickey (@kathhickey) says Ira should cover stories about “single dads, space exploration, foodies, [and] digital libraries.”
Check out other ideas here: Share your story: #PitchIra Glass (with tweets) · Storify.